- Marty Smith, ESPN
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Kyle Busch didn't stand up and wave his hand and ask for the comparisons, so in truth they're not even fair. But because he drives every lap like his lady's in labor in the passenger seat at rush hour and hurling obscenities that would make Ron White blush, he got them anyway.
That, and because he wins. A lot. And because he rubs those wins in with a bow and zero remorse. And because he relishes the Junior Nation-wide salute that he's No. 1.
No doubt, it's eerily similar to the early '80s, when Darrell Waltrip's fans hated Dale Earnhardt's guts, and Dale Earnhardt loved every second of it.
But is Busch really like Dale Earnhardt? No offense to Busch -- he can drive his face off; he'd take a trash compactor three-wide -- but Earnhardt is, well, Earnhardt. There ain't but one.
Comparing them is like comparing Kid Rock to George Strait: respected for the same thing but for different reasons.
"There'll never be another Earnhardt, period," said ESPN NASCAR analyst Andy Petree, who as crew chief of the No. 3 Chevrolet led Earnhardt to two Cup titles. "I don't care if his name is Earnhardt; there'll never be another one like Dale."
I figured the best way to get an accurate comparison of "Rowdy" to "The Intimidator" was to gauge Big E's pit-crew boys who are still in the business, guys like Petree, who jumped in the foxhole with him and saw firsthand what whoop-ass on wheels looks like.
"If you look at them on the racetrack, Kyle's winning and doesn't care what people think about him. He does what he needs to do to win and doesn't mind having that bad-boy image. That's Earnhardt-like," Petree said. "Now, his other image is not like Earnhardt at all.
"Earnhardt was a blue-collar guy -- put-my-jeans-on-and-stomp-around-on-the-farm kind of guy. That's not Kyle Busch. I don't know if it's fair to compare him to Earnhardt. But we need a bad guy in NASCAR. We need half the people cheering and half the people booing. Kyle fills that gap a little bit."
In 1980, at age 20, Doug Richert was crew chief when Earnhardt won his first Cup title. That's back when Big E was as ornery as an old cow in the road and tougher than Ajax. (Then again, he was always tougher than Ajax.) He'd wreck you to win and wasn't much concerned with what you had to say about it.
"I really don't think you can compare them at all," Richert said. "If you had a man standing there, and a boy standing there, that's the [comparison] you've got. The maturity level is so different."
Richert makes an interesting point. He took it outside the cockpit, which none of us have done. We've all been concerned with the aesthetics of one racing style versus another. Earnhardt's place in life back then was quite different from Busch's current place in life. One most certainly affects the other.
Earnhardt was 29 in 1980. He had three children. He'd been married and divorced twice. Busch in 2009 is still just 23, single, learning on the fly. Joe Gibbs said Sunday when the comparison was broached that it wasn't fair to Busch to make such comparisons. Richert agrees.
"You can't compare the two, their personalities or as people," Richert continued. "That's a strong statement to try to compare someone's personalities or maturities."
OK, fair enough. So what about inside the car? Does Busch hang it out like Dale did?
Danny "Chocolate" Myers would know as well as anyone. Myers, gas man for Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevy forever and currently a Sirius NASCAR Radio personality, saw firsthand Earnhardt's grit-your-teeth tenacity and utter unwillingness to accept mediocrity. So what about Busch?
"I don't see him as Dale Earnhardt -- I don't do that," Myers said. "But I do see the way the team operates, and it reminds me a lot of us. I don't like to compare anybody to anybody, really. But yet again I see some of the things these [No. 18 team] guys are doing, and there's a lot of similarities."
Myers mentioned a conversation he had recently with Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, in which the team comparison came up.
"I told him we never left the building when we didn't think we were going to win the race," Myers said. "When we left, we were going to kick ass and take names, and I think they're doing the same thing. We're seeing Kyle Busch do things none of these other guys will do.
"We saw that cat go three-wide at Bristol. Three-wide! He don't care! It's not about the money, he just wants to drive that damn race car. I heard someone ask him, 'What motivates you?' He said, 'The car in front of me.' I remember Barney Hall asked Dale once, 'Where's the best place to pass someone at Bristol?' Dale said, 'Hell, I just pass 'em wherever I catch 'em.' Same thing."
Busch rubbed some folks ill Saturday when he gave his Nationwide team a tongue-lashing after it fumbled a tire on pit road at Bristol, almost certainly costing him the victory. It was uncalled for. But here's the thing: Many drivers do that.
That by no means makes it right, but in the heat of competition it happens. Look at yourself in the mirror. You probably say some things you wish you hadn't sometimes, too. I'm a pretty easygoing guy, but if my teammate screws up in lunchtime pickup hoops and costs me a victory, I'm on him like a duck on a June bug. I hate losing when losing means nothing whatsoever in the grand scope. Who knows how I'd react if it actually mattered?
"I don't think he means it," Myers said. "He was pissed, but the guys in the pits were every bit as pissed at themselves. When you've got a deal going like they do, everybody's on the same page. There's nothing those guys won't do for him, and nothing he won't do for them. We were that same way, too."
To me, comparing statistics between the two is ridiculous, given the completely different industry dynamics between then and now. Busch's opportunity came so much earlier in the life than Earnhardt's did, and for that matter he was in better cars immediately.
But to Busch's credit, it's harder to win nowadays.
"The whole competition level is so much higher," Richert said. "Back then, it was competitive, but different. Technology was way different, so in the older days they were purely drivers that hopped in the car and made it do what it needed to do.
"But the engineering wasn't there back in the day. Now there's a lot of emphasis on [simulation] programs and tire data and [aerodynamic] maps and all kinds of stuff. Today it's more competitive. The competition level now is a wider, broader stance. There's a lot of cars that run real good. In the old days there weren't that many."
So that leaves the key similarity: me-against-the-world mentality.
"If you want to take their success rate, Kyle's doing a phenomenal job," Richert said. "He's a great driver. On the track both were very aggressive. On the track they're running up front and winning races. Talent-wise, they were both on that [steering] wheel, and both could win early on and had that killer instinct."
Said Petree: "He fills that bad-boy gap we need in the sport that no one's been able to fill since Earnhardt. He doesn't care what you think. I like that. We need it. They're the same in that respect, but again, there's only one Earnhardt."
I'm a huge Elliott Sadler fan, and I just can't figure out why the heck he doesn't run better. Kasey Kahne is in the same equipment, right? Kasey finished seventh at Atlanta and fifth at Bristol and looks to be really competitive each and every week. What's the key differences between them? Explain to me why Kasey does so much better than Elliott, Marty!
-- Casey Shackleford, Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Kahne's talent and the most underrated crew chief in NASCAR.
That's pretty much the story, Casey.
That's no knock on Sadler. He told me himself that, in his opinion, Kahne is the most talented driver in the sport. And if you ask Kahne, Kenny Francis is the smartest guy on pit road. (Don't ask Francis anything, because he's not much of a talker. Nicest guy on Earth, smarter than you, but he's not hosting any radio shows anytime soon.)
What he is is Liquid Nails. Coupled with Kahne, they're holding Richard Petty Motorsports together. Francis' insight and foresight are invaluable in that place, and he and Kahne have been together so long that their communication is somewhere just south of ESP.
They're like an old married couple. My grandparents have been married for 65 years. My granddaddy doesn't have to tell my grandmother he wants crackers and milk. She just knows. Same deal.
Do Kahne and Sadler have the same cars? Yes and no. They have access to the same parts and pieces, certainly, but not the same in-race adjustments. Francis is playing chess. He's a move ahead.
Plus, their driving styles are quite different, so it's difficult for Sadler's crew chief, Kevin Buskirk, to just take the 9's setup and throw it in the 19. It's the same reason Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson struggle to implement each other's feedback. They just don't drive the same way.
Back to Kahne for a moment. How's this for high praise?
"I was fortunate to work with Richard Petty for years, and then I got the opportunity to go work with Jeff Gordon," RPM vice president Robbie Loomis said. "There are so many traits in Jeff that I saw in Richard. And now, being here, there are so many traits in Kasey [Kahne] that I see in those other guys.
"It's really gratifying for me to see. It's almost like when you read one of those books that speaks of champions, there's a reason those traits are in people. What we want to do is make sure that we maximize that potential to get those wins and those championships."
Given the proper circumstances, Kahne and Francis could contend for a championship at RPM. Right now, Sadler can't. He can drive and is personable and has all the tools to succeed in Cup.
But it won't happen at RPM. The relationship is just too far gone.
That happens sometimes when you fire a guy on Christmas Eve.
I know this question isn't good enough for The Six, but how did Brian Vickers get "The Sheriff" nickname?
-- Raine, Toronto, Canada
Not good enough for The Six? Come on, Raine! This one's tailor-made for The Six!
Vickers was handed the moniker "Sheriff Brian Lee Vickers" a few summers ago by our mutual buddy. Our buddy owns a ranch just north of Dallas, and every time we race at Texas we go out there and ride horses and shoot guns and raise Cain.
Well, we were out there one afternoon shooting guns, and Vickers shows up with an arsenal befitting Fort Bragg.
It was Wyatt Earp meets Dennis the Menace.
Shortly thereafter, Jimmie Johnson and I started calling him that often on "Not What You Expected," Johnson's XM Radio show. His fans caught on and loved it, thought it was hilarious.
Song of the week: "Between Jennings and Jones." Jamey Johnson. So clever. So, so clever.
I have been going to Bristol for 10 years. I have been disappointed in the last two Spring races, especially Sunday's race. I don't remember a race at Bristol where only 16 cars are on the lead lap with no major wreck taking out half of the field.
I wanted to get your opinion on the racing at Bristol this last weekend. Is it the new car? The new banking at the track? Or is it just me wanting too much action at Bristol? Enjoy your column, keep up the good work. Go Junior!
-- Eric, Xenia, Ohio
I can't lie. Bristol's not the same. That doesn't mean it's worse, because it's not. That would be unfair. It's just different. Most of us grew up loving Bristol more for wrecks than racing.
The new reconfigured surface makes for more racing grooves, thereby enabling drivers to race side-by-side. They have options now. Used to be, on the old surface, to pass someone you pretty well had to move them. That made for the signature Bristol fireworks.
Odd thing is, if you ask some drivers, it's actually harder to pass now.
"You could complete a pass better with the old configuration, because once you got under a guy, you forced him into the outside lane, which was way slower, and you could get by," Carl Edwards said.
"You could make the pass stick. It was harder to initiate a pass. It was harder to get a run on someone. Now, you can get a run on someone easily, but it's really hard to complete the pass. The fans see more side-by-side racing, but it's tough."
Jimmie Johnson echoed Edwards' analysis.
"Now we can run side-by-side a lot easier," Jimmie Johnson said. "Now with the ease to run side-by-side, you can't complete a pass. So I think when you have a track this small and this tight you're going to have bumping and banging and things that have made Bristol so popular.
"You don't have the blatant bump-and-runs now as often as you did with the old track, but still to complete a pass on a fast car you've got to give them a shot in the bumper, or you have to come in and run them up high and lean on them some to get by. Otherwise you'll just sit there side by side forever.
"There's nothing bad about it, it's just it's changed some and it's a little bit different to race. And in the end I think when our frustration level gets high it sees people on their feet and makes them smile. That's what it's about."
Despite the likelihood of wrecking, most drivers preferred the old surface.
"I liked it better almost before because it was harder -- it was much harder to stay after it," Greg Biffle said. "The track configuration now is actually a little easier because it laid the corners down and kind of smoothed them out and made them longer, so it makes it a little easier, but it puts on maybe a little better side-by-side racing.
"I liked it better the hard way just because it was harder and less people ran good, let me put it that way. Would you rather compete against six or 26? It's much harder when everyone is running the same speed. Before, if you got your car working good, you had a big advantage."
Bristol's still an amazing show. It's still one of the two or three hottest tickets in NASCAR. It's still among the most stimulating sensory experiences in professional sports.
Just because it's different doesn't mean it's worse, but I completely understand your thought, Eric.
I noticed after the Bristol Nationwide race that it appeared Kevin Harvick had on a Scott's hat. Was that a gift from his friend Carl Edwards? I heard Carl say he thought it was cool that Kevin got a win in his own car. All the bad feelings from the rumble in the garage over or will Bruton Smith get his wish with a match at the All-Star race?
-- Bob Coder, Upland, Calif.
Not so much, Bob. The Bristol Nationwide race was the Scott's Turf Builder 300. Hence the hat.
What is the purpose of the grooved tires I see around the garage on race weekends? They look like F1 tires with those four or five grooves around them. Does that make it easier to push the car around the garage or something, with less tire on the ground?
-- Brady, Laurel, Md.
I asked one of my buddies who is a tire specialist for you, Brady, and he tells me the grooved tires were mandated two years ago when the tire-testing policy was implemented. Goodyear has a machine that grooves tires left over from a race that teams elect to transfer to setup tires. That way they can't be used for testing purposes, but are fine for setup, scaling, etc.,
First time I saw them I thought they'd gone and broken out the rain tires.
That's my time. Excellent questions this week, Six, keep 'em coming.
Now I'm off to Virginia to see how the Weed Wackers did on my landscaping back home. Word is it's impeccable. I reckon I owe them pit passes.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
2dK. Lee Davis